Accession # 1901.0002
Item: Object: Pill Box
This small pill box, only .5 inches tall and just under an inch wide, is made of blue and black enamel. On the lid is written “Let your love like mine be lasting”. Mrs. Randolph may have used a pill box similar to this to hold home remedies of her own or pills bought at the apothecary if there was one nearby.
Drugs were so expensive in the 18th century that colonists looked to their own gardens for remedies. Mrs. Randolph provided the health care for the plantation. It was common for the mothers to provide such care where there were few doctors. Powdered compounds were held together with wax, in dry or wet form. Plants and herbs were ground into powder using a mortar and pestle. “Benefits” were plants used to prevent disease while “helps” were the ones that provided cures. Some herbs that may have been used include foxglove, sassafras, sweet basil, and digitalis. Some of the home remedies of the past have affected our medicine of the present. The inside bark of the Willow tree was chewed to lessen pain. It contains an ingredient that goes into modern aspirin tablets.
Pills are first seen being used in ancient Egyptian times, as documented on papyruses. These were made of bread dough, honey, or grease. Plant powders that may have included cinnamon, myrrh, or saffron were mixed with them by rolling the ingredients into balls. In the 18th century patented medicine that one could buy from the general store or apothecary contained secret ingredients. Some examples of brand names were “Scot’s Pills”, “Daffy’s Elixir”, “Dutch Drops”, and “Goddard Drops.” Some others are “Chase’s Kidney-Liver Pills” and “William’s Pink Pills for Pale People (for the blood and nerves).” An apothecary could have used a pill tile to roll and divide pills. By 1700, drugs were tested and endorsed but not many of them worked. Some examples are: digitalis (the dried leaves of the purple foxglove) which was given for tuberculosis; iron salts for anemia; and Colchicum (a medical preparation made from the seeds or bulbs of the meadow saffron which had a solid bulblike rootstock and purple flowers) for rheumatic pains. Innovations in the 1800s included sugar or gelatin coating of pills.
The pill box is only big enough to fit maybe one or two pills. However, it would have fit well in the pocket of breeches or a petticoat more easily than a bottle and only a few pills are most times necessary to take. If the pill box was a gift to the original owner, the message on the outside would bring to mind the giver of the box each time the bearer of it used it. Hopefully, it would make the consumption of the medication under the pleasant words much more endurable.
“Digitalis.” Def. 2 and “Colchicum.” Def. 3. Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged. 2nd ed. 1979.
Mestel, Rosie.“The Colorful History of Pills can fill many a tablet.” LA Times on the Web. 25 March 2002. 19 November 2011. <articles.latimes.com/2002/mar/25/health/he-booster25>.
Silverman, Milton Morris. Pills, Profits, and Politics. Berkley: University of California Press, 1974.
Terkel, Susan Neiburg, Colonial American Medicine. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993.
Townsend, John. A Painful History of Medicine: Pills, Powders and Potions, A History of Medicine. Chicago: Raintree Publishing Company, 2006.
Wilbur, C. Keith. Revolutionary Medicine 1700-1800. 2nd ed. Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 1997.